One of those life changing (nearly life-ending) momentsFor some reason, I’ve been reflecting upon my academic career, which reaches its 40th anniversary next year.
Nearly twenty years ago, I was asked to speak at a meeting of economic assistance administrators. I accepted before learning that there would be no compensation. The program coordinator advised me that there may be hidden rewards for my generosity. Was she ever correct. When I finished my comments about community management through tourism development, a woman in the back row stood and asked, “Will these ideas work in rural communities in coastal Alaska?” I must have responded something like, “I don’t know, lady, but I sure would like to find out.” Months passed, and before one could say Rumpelstiltskin, I was traveling–by bush plane, by SUV, by sea plane–with this same woman into some of the most remote villages on the North American continent. One of those experiences stands out to this day. I think you’ll understand why.
One of our first ventures brought us into the Athapaskan village of Minto. Minto could be accessed in three ways: by bush plane, by a one hundred mile long gravel road, and by snowmobile (winters only). At the very moment we entered the village via the horrible road, a small airplane was taking off. This latter circumstance proved to be very meaningful. One thing I’d learned about remote tribal villages is this: outsiders are unwelcome unless there is a local present to vouch for them. In our case, the person we drove all the way out to meet had just departed on the small bush plane. To make matters worse, we heard a loud hissing sound as we exited our SUV (don’t worry, things get worse). It was immediately apparent that our rear tire had been punctured by a sharp rock as we entered Minto. As a further problem, my travel partner had no idea where the car dealer had placed the key to unlock the lug nuts on her spare tire. What to do? We needed a mechanic; however, the few villagers who allowed themselves to be seen treated us as though we were invisible. Finally, an elderly man offered to show us the house of the village’s auto mechanic, in exchange for a ride to Fairbanks where he intended to go drinking with relatives. My colleague had no choice but to agree. However, once we nursed the car to the mechanic’s house, the latter wasn’t the slightest bit interested in helping us. So we sat, and sat, in his driveway, hoping he would relent and help us. After nearly two hours of this fruitless activity, our fortunes changed. Another villager drove into the yard and, without saying anything to us, walked directly into the mechanic’s house. While he was gone, his cute little three year old daughter remained outside in the car. As the father of two daughters–both of whom I missed dearly–something clicked with the little Athabaskan girl. By the time the father returned, his daughter and I were engaged in a rousing game of peek-a-boo. Fortunately for us (particularly yours truly), he saw this as a sign that this cheechako was okay. He turned on his heels and, fifteen minutes later, the mechanic emerged from his lair. To their credit, those two men struggled for over an hour, seeking a remedy for the lost lug nut key. Finally, my colleague remembered where she had seen the key, and the tire was fixed.
I don’t know about you readers, but I look back on times like these and direct thanks heavenward, as this easily could have been a fatal experience. On a happier note, remind me to tell you how I once did a solo drum dance for an entire village of Yupiks.